Cover photo by: Starr Cline
Article by: Ben Maney
I spend a couple of hours a week, in the inner city, teaching general music and music appreciation at the Community School of the Arts, as part of an arts enrichment program for disadvantaged kids. Many of these kids live in homeless shelters, cheap hotels, etc. Some of them may be in the foster care system.
The other day I had two small classes which allowed lots of time for group interaction/discussion. All of the kids were in kindergarden through third grade. Some of them have been held back and are a few years older than most of the other kids. This is an after school program, so they usually come in looking fatigued after a long day.
We began the class listening to Louis Armstrong’s version of “Stardust,” which is one of my favorite recordings. I wrote his name on the board and asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to read it out loud. I called on an eager student who had confidently raised her hand. She was much taller and, most likely, older than the other kids. She may have been 9 or 10 years old. She said, “I can’t read, but I can sound it out.” I said, “By all means! There is music in his name too!”
She carefully sounded out the letters and delightfully put the syllables of his first name together. She said it out loud three or four times,”Louis.. Louis Louis.” Then we all had fun as we each did our best strong man impression as we discovered how to pronounce Louie’s last name. Finally, I had them count silently and play egg shakers in time with the tune.
Within the first four bars of the introduction, they all had a look of wonderment on their faces and a far away look in their eyes. They were transfixed. After Louie’s first pass through the melody on trumpet, he began to sing. They all erupted with laughter, but they weren’t laughing at him.
They were filled with the same kind of joy that many kids feel on Christmas Day. It was the kind of joy that can’t be and shouldn’t be contained. They all began trying to lip synch to Louie, without knowing the words, and without the slightest sense of reservation. This was all happening while they were keeping great time with their shakers.
When the song was over I asked them to share their impressions. I asked them how it made them feel. I was grinning through my tears and trying not to let them flow. They all said words like “pretty, fun, sleepy, funny, sunny,” but the word of consensus was undoubtedly “happy.” All of them said that the music just made them feel really happy.
A few minutes later we had moved on to another activity. They were sitting in a circle and I was about to have them stand up one at a time and play a rack tom drum with two drum sticks. As I was giving instructions, the older girl I had called on, to sound out Louis Armstrong’s name, raised her hand. I called on her and she said, “I’m still thinking about listening to Louis Armstrong, and how happy it made me feel, and I’m still happy right now.” I started misting up. Then she said ” It makes me feel like making music myself , so I can make people feel happy, so that they can feel happy like I do right now.”
I told her that was the most inspiring comment I had ever heard out of one of my classrooms, and that I knew she would make music that would make many many people happy. So yeah. I was practically in melting mode.This is the closest I’ve come to breaking down in front of a classroom full of kids. It was worth it.
Dear Louis Armstrong, thank you for your indomitable torch of brilliant and joyful music. May this eternal light continue to inspire and illuminate the parts of the world that need it most. We all need it these days. I know I do.
And to the kids with a strong will to find joy in life: Despite the insurmountable odds set against you, due to no fault of your own, you will persevere and inspire those who are compelled to educate and encourage you to be great, even though you already are. You are a beautiful, awesome, and indestructible light in this world.
© Ben Maney, 2015.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy Todd Steed’s Beginner’s Guide to Jazz.